|Surprised, by Henri Rousseau|
The Guardian is running a two week series on the Sixth Extinction and in Wednesday’s column Jonathan Jones, who normally writes about art, argued that the Sixth Extinction menaces the very foundations of culture. Take a look at the prehistoric paintings in the caves of
After Picasso toured the he was so impressed
by the imagination and technique of the artists from thousands of years ago
that he said, “We have learned nothing.” In Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary
about the spectacular images in the Chauvet cave, which feature animals
exclusively, he was moved to ask, “What constitutes humanness?” Jones argues
that for our hunter-painter ancestors “it was in the wild herds around them that the power of the cosmos and
the mystery of existence seemed to be located.” Lascaux
And there is the paradox. For even as the early humans were painting mammoths, they were hunting them to extinction. Similarly today, though human culture is deeply rooted in nature, human activity is responsible for the extinction of entire species. The loss of a species isn’t just the termination of a branch of the tree of life. It’s the loss of the “images, stories, symbols and wonders that we live by.” To call it a cultural loss is a factual but gross understatement. It is a pernicious loss that impoverishes our very imaginations.
Consider the tiger, whose numbers have plummeted from more than 100,000 to about 3200 in seven decades. Think of the stories about tigers that we tell our children, how they populate our first picture books and childhood dreams with their ferocity and agility. Even in adulthood, they lurk in our minds as in the above painting by Henri Rousseau. In William Blake’s 1794 poem, The Tyger, the first line sings out, “Tyger, tyger burning bright,” as if the beast is a star in our imagination that perpetually shines. What are we going to do if we lose the tiger? What then? It’s a question I’ve asked myself and my students. So far as I can tell, the answer is that our world will be dimmer, our imaginations less wild and our guilt greater, for this is something we’ve allowed under our stewardship.
If only this was only about the tiger. Jones reminds us that sharks, who have swam the oceans for millions of years, are under siege (see also here). He argues that today’s shark films and scare stories and cut from the same mould as the stories of bears and wolves that stone age hunters told around the campfire millennia ago. Though we fear them, our culture thrives on them. And of course, it’s not just tigers and sharks who are suffering from human over-consumption or over-hunting. All major groups of animals are suffering. Have a look through a large volume of fairy tales and the challenge will be to find tales that don’t feature animals. Explore the tales of indigenous peoples and you’ll find animals everywhere you look.
Kudos to the Guardian is raising the alarm about the many ways the Sixth Extinction is manifesting itself. Jones demonstrates that “we are part of nature and it has always fed our imaginations.” If we’re to have a hope of doing more than “facing the bare walls of an empty museum, a gallery of the dead,” we need to tune in to this crisis we’re creating while we can still do something about it.
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